‘RISE UP’–US workers push forward

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Tobacco workers marching to demand the employers meet with the Farm Laborers Organizing Committee
Tobacco workers marching to demand the employers meet with the Farm Laborers Organizing Committee

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has spoken about the importance of the struggle of the US trade unions.

‘Today, thousands of workers embraced a union future. The hardworking men and women of American Airlines and US Airways voted for union representation and a legally binding contract. Their collective skill has built successful airlines, and their collective voice will build successful workplaces.

‘It should not be lost on the pundits that most of the nearly 14,500 new union members work in southern states. The right to a voice at work doesn’t have a geographic predisposition, and this victory will energise ongoing organising efforts in the South.

‘I want to thank all parties involved, including elected officials, for enabling workers to have a free and fair election. And I especially want to congratulate CWA and the Teamsters on helping give these workers a voice.

‘Clearly, one of the largest labour organising victories in the South in decades is a historic day. But it also shows that the future of the US labour movement is alive, as these workers can be found at airports, call centres, even working from home. The right to collectively bargain will always be what our working family fights for.’

• Meanwhile the push by the United Auto Workers to end two-tier wages in American auto plants is a welcome move that should help Unifor improve wages and working conditions in the Canadian auto industry, Unifor National President Jerry Dias says.

‘This is a positive step by the UAW to eliminate inequities on the shop floor,’ Dias said.

‘It is time for auto workers on both sides of the border to share in the recovery of the industry, and I congratulate the UAW on taking this step.’

A one-day strike at a Lear Corp. plant in Indiana, which makes seats for Ford, ended when the company agreed to end two-tier wages, in which new hires are paid less than existing employees on a permanent basis. The deal is set for ratification this weekend.

As the industry faced tough times over its last couple of contract talks, the UAW accepted two-tiering for new hires. The Lear deal, however, is seen as a sign that the UAW is prepared to tackle two-tier wages in its contract talks with the Big Three auto makers in 2015.

‘It sends the signal. The UAW is being very proactive and progressive,’ Dias said. Two-tiering in the US put pressure on Canadian workers to accept two-tier wages at plants on this side of the border. The Canadian Auto Workers, a founding union of Unifor, fought off those demands by agreeing to longer progression rates, in which new hires take longer to get to the top rate at the plant.

Dias said the UAW’s move will take pressure off Unifor to bring two-tier wages to the Big Three auto plants here when contract talks open in Canada in 2016, and sends a clear signal that it is time for workers to share in the industry’s recovery.

‘This is about equality in the workforce,’ said Dias. ‘Bank executives are doing very well, the auto industry and its executives are doing incredibly well. So, why shouldn’t the workers, and that includes the auto parts sector, also do well?’

Unifor is Canada’s largest union in the private sector, representing more than 305,000 workers, including 40,000 in auto and auto parts. It was formed over Labour Day weekend 2013 when the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union merged.

• Meanwhile, ‘The only way to win economic justice in America is to organise the South,’ says MaryBe McMillian, Secretary-Treasurer of the North Carolina AFL-CIO.

During this year’s Netroots Nation, one panel discussion focused on how labour and progressive organisations are building a movement to effect real social change in America.

Those of us in the labour movement often think of ‘organising’ as recruiting new members to join our union ranks. While organising workers is a crucial part of ‘organising the South’, the panel’s broader message is that we need to organise people to push for progressive values.

Reverend Dr William Barber explained what these progressive values are in a recent speech at the AFT convention. He repeated them as he spoke at Netroots Nation:

1. Protecting workers and their rights to organise and form unions.

2. Protecting women’s health and reproductive rights and the rights of the LBGT community.

3. Protecting our Constitutional right to vote, making it easier for everyone to vote.

4. Strengthening our public education system.

5. Ensuring everyone has access to affordable healthcare.

For example, progressive organisations in North Carolina are coming together in weekly protest marches, in what they call ‘Moral Mondays’.

McMillian explained, ‘We have been successful in organising multiple groups to participate in Moral Mondays because we are all under attack.’

‘The South has always been ground zero for the civil rights movement,’ Planned Parenthood Federation’s Carol McDonald told the Netroots Nation audience, before describing some of the most legislative ‘wins’ that came from the Moral Mondays movement.

To effect real economic change throughout the United States, we have to stop the exploitation of workers in the South. ‘Organising workers from Texas to North Carolina, we will change the South and in turn change the nation,’ said McMillian.

In recent years, labour unions throughout the South have been working to organise workers like Will Branch, an employee at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga TN who was part of the panel discussion.

Inside the facility, UAW’s organising efforts were welcomed by both workers and plant managers.

In Germany, all of Volkswagen’s plants are unionised. They have ‘works councils’ where labour leaders meet with managers to discuss plans to make the plant more efficient, to make a better product, and how they can make sure that the needs of both sides are satisfied. This is exactly the type of labour-management relations that Volkswagen was trying to build in Chattanooga.

‘With a local works council, workers would have a voice they can use to make Volkswagen stronger; in safety, job security and efficiency,’ said Jonathan Walden, Volkswagen paint technician. ‘Global representation means Chattanooga workers may have a strong voice in seeking new products and bringing more jobs to Tennessee.’

Despite Volkswagen’s encouragement of the organising efforts of the United Auto Workers, many of the local politicians were not so happy.

• Misleading stories ran in the local media, hinting that if the workers voted for the union, their plant could be closed. (This of course was news to Volkswagen, who tried to reassure workers and their new community that they were here to stay.)

• US Senator Bob Corker made outrageous claims that VW would only expand their plant if workers rejected the union.

• Tennessee’s Governor Bill Haslan offered $300 million dollars of taxpayer money, in the form of an ‘incentive’ to Volkswagen, provided that the plant was not unionised.

‘It’s essentially saying, “If you unionise, it’s going to hurt your economy. Why? Because I’m going to make sure it does”,’ said Volkswagen worker Lauren Feinauer. ‘I hope people see it for the underhanded threat that it is.’

‘Politicians subjected Volkswagen workers to a two-week barrage of anti-UAW propaganda, outright lies, distortions, and threats about the viability of their plant. Their allies … refused to reveal their funding sources and … openly republished the illicit threats in the media and among the Volkswagen workforce,’ the UAW said in a written statement.

The union representation election process resulted in a National Labour Relations Board challenge, which was dropped when the UAW and Volkswagen announced that they have created ‘UAW Local 42’, a new union local that will represent the workers at the newly created works council.

‘What is best for the worker is what is best for the company,’ VW employee Will Branch told the Netroots Nation audience. ‘It is not the money that keeps America going, it is us, the workers.’

Throughout the country, workers have begun to take collective action to highlight the fact that they are being abused and underpaid.

For instance, ‘Raise Up for $15’ is working to organise low-wage workers, mostly in fast-food restaurants, to push for a living wage.

Cherri Delesline has worked at McDonalds for nearly a decade to support her family. She told the crowd at Netroots Nation, ‘After ten years with McDonalds, I only make a little more than I did when I started.’ Delesline went on to say, ‘Managers at my store only make a little more than $8.00 an hour.

‘Do the maths. A minimum wage worker working full time only makes $15,500 a year. The federal poverty level for a family of four is $23,850. These workers are working full time – and are still living in poverty.’

These fast-food workers are calling for North Carolina – and the country – to ‘Rise Up’ by paying workers a $15 per hour minimum. Raise Up has also been working to help these fast food workers in their efforts to form unions.

However, these workers are not waiting for the NLRB to say they are officially represented by a union; they are going ‘old school’. They are speaking out collectively, holding wildcat strikes and walkouts, until store management listens to their demands.

Their fight for a living wage is only just beginning. These workers are taking a big risk by stepping out against their employer, but they also know it is the right thing to do.

In North Carolina, it is not just fast-food workers who are seeing the benefits of union representation. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) have been organising at food processing plants throughout the state.

They successfully organised the Smithfield Foods plant in 2008 after a decade-long campaign. Now they have turned their eyes to the Mountaire chicken processing plant, 20 miles down the road.

‘Slaughterhouse work is particularly dangerous. A 2005 Government Accountability Office report states that poultry and slaughterhouse workers suffer on-the-job injuries and illnesses at a rate more than twice the national average,’ wrote Aaron Lake Smith in an article for INDY Week.

The UFWC members from the Smithfield plant are using their free time to explain to the workers at the Mountaire plant just how much the union has changed their lives. But management at Mountaire is not taking this organising drive sitting down. They are fighting back, using union-busting firms and pushing the envelope of the legality of opposing workers’ right to organise.

For more than a decade, the Farm Laborers Organizing Committee (FLOC-AFLCIO) has been locked in a heated battle with RJ Reynolds over the slave-like treatment of workers who harvest their tobacco.

‘While big tobacco corporations make billions, tobacco farm workers live in poverty, face racism, harassment, nicotine poisoning, lethal pesticides, miserable housing in labour camps and denial of basic human rights and labour protections,’ the FLOC wrote on their website.

The FLOC has chalked up a few wins, with contract agreements with Campbell’s Soup, produce growers in Michigan and Ohio, and the 2004 contract agreement with the North Carolina Growers Association – but RJ Reynolds still eludes them.

Some people say that, ‘Once upon a time, unions were needed to protect workers, but we have laws for that now.’

But listening to the workers in the fields, in the plants, and behind the counters, it is obvious that unions are needed now more than ever.